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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Myth of Having Summers Off

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

"So you're a teacher, huh?" says the umpteenth Joe know-it-all. I know the tone, and I know what's coming. "Must be nice having summer's off," he sneers.

I don't know what mythical job this guy thinks I have, but I have never had a summer off.

I don't know who these teachers are who are supposedly laying around all summer sippin' sangrias without a thought of prepping for the year before them. But I'm not one of them.

In fact, is there really a "them?"

Bottom line is that every year since entering teaching, and you should know that I am a second career teacher, having come from The World Beyond, I have seen some of the busiest summer months of my life. This is for many reasons:

1. I generally have to work summer school because let's face it, who doesn't need the moo-la? And that's not just about the hours I spend with students, but the hours I need to spend prepping for them. I develop the lesson plans and set up my learning environment for a whole new slew of students that I'll only have for a month or so.

2. I attend or head Department and curriculum meetings that are scheduled during July and August. This summer, I'm working on developing the 8th grade ELA performance tasks for my district. But I'm not the only one. There are teachers all over my district, at every grade level, developing these assessments this year.

3. I develop and improve the curriculum that may or may not have worked over the school year, and summer's the only chunk of time to reflect and tweak those lessons.

4. I build a library of new lessons because, let's face it, I sure as heck don't have a lot of time to do that during a year that is packed full of high-energy, tightly paced, over-scheduled days. I go through my feeds and readers and pull resources to use. I create files to access during the school year. I develop Project Based Learning units to save myself much-needed time during the actual school year.

5. I learn the new technology or new curriculum programs I've been given. Once again, summer's the only time to learn them. So whether I'm being asked to pilot teaching with a class set of iPads (like last summer) or, having now passed those to another teacher, a class set of Chromebooks like this upcoming year, I need to spend my summer educating myself on the tools with which I will be teaching and guiding my students.

6. I write, I blog, I comment. In other words, I maintain my online relationships so that collaboration is easier throughout the school year. After all, not all answers will come from your own staff. You have to develop and maintain a VLC (virtual learning community) as well as a PLC. Resources come from everywhere.

7. I continue my own professional development. I take classes or attend webinars. I join Twitter conversations or Google Hangouts. It's a 24-7-365 education conference out there!

8. I heal and recharge my batteries for the next round of middle schoolers to come through my door. It's true. By the end of the year, teachers are limping towards vacation. And do the math: by the end of summer school, the mythical 2 months you are accused of having off really only amounts to 3 weeks or so until the start of the new year. And those weeks are filled moving your own student desks from the pile in the middle of the room, putting up your bulletin boards, shoving shelves back into place, planning, prepping, preparing, and scabbing over.

Teachers as Yearlong Learners

Back to my Joe Know-it-all: I really should've asked if he wanted to spend his year doing what I do. I spend my days, my minutes, and my hours existing at the pace of a middle schooler. Frankly, I deserve some time off after that. But the fact is, not only do I not get it, I don't know how I would ever function with it.

After all, thinking like a teacher never ends. And when you love teaching, you can't just turn it off at the end of June.

You still continue to search for books in every store to replenish your classroom library. When a big news story comes out, you immediately try to seek out that last copy of the New York Times to use as a primary document to refer to in upcoming years. You pick up props and realia to supplement your lesson plans.

The fact is, we need the breaks we get in order to do the job that we do 10 months of the year. And the other 2 months are spent doing other parts of the job.

Civilians don't realize the toll that teaching takes on a person, on their energy, their appearance even. You ever see the pictures of a president before their term began and after their term ended? Well, teaching's kinda like that. Adult humans aren't built to spend their days with hundreds of children each day. It takes a lot out of an adult to have their antennae up so high, so often, so consistently.

And yet we have troops of people willing to return to the classroom year after year, with no summer break, just for the honor of calling themselves teachers.

The least those civilians can do is acknowledge that while their children are at camp, giving them a break from parenting, we intend to do what we always do...be teachers.

Hope you are having a great summer.

Originally Published April 13, 2014

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TaughtThemNot's picture

I've heard this argument before, but in all due respect to friends of mine who are full-time educators, I still think it's a flaw in our education system that teachers have three months of paid vacation time built in to their contracts.

I've worked as a teacher--just part time--and it is indeed EXHAUSTING. I think most people overlook that. It's also one of the few jobs that truly requires you to take your work home with you. It's emotionally training, challenging, and doing it right isn't easy. But the fact that teachers are "lifelong learners" or that they attend seminars doesn't change that. Journalists or doctors or engineers who are good at their job no doubt attend seminars voluntarily or read books to better themselves in the field without being directly paid for it. It's troubling, too, to hear dear friend of mine who are teachers complain about their "miserable" salaries of $50K or $60K a year, while I have just as much experience but work in a much less lucrative field that requires just as much education and consistently make a mere fraction of those amounts, all the while working from about 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on average, frequently including weekends and holidays. This is reality these days, folks. With that in mind, naturally it's also hard to sympathize with the sentiment that "we work ... because who doesn't need extra money?" Tons of professionals do freelance work in addition to their other job. But they're not doing it while still receiving a paycheck from their full-time employer unless they allotted personal days to their freelance work just for that purpose.

It was such a relief to meet a young educator who went out of his way to acknowledge that having summer off has been one of the sweetest benefits of his young career--receiving a paycheck while he drove cross country. I do not resent him for it. In fact, I envy him. At times I just wish more educators would own up to the reality that while his or her job may not be perfect for innumerable reasons, having 90 days + personal days to do what you want is a really, really nice benefit of the profession.

Mike McCool's picture

I'm glad someone else got nitpicky because I couldn't help noticing that the author used "laying" instead of "lying" when she wrote "laying around all summer sippin' sangrias." Using lay in that context has a very different connotation since lay is a transitive verb. Pointing out these kinds of errors--particularly on an education website-- might be nitpicking, but how can we hold our students to a high standard of literacy if teachers and editors don't even practice it in their own writing?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

I think that's an interesting question, Mike. While I am incredibly careful about punctuation and grammar in most of my writing, I find that blog posts/ comments/ status updates tend to be less rigorous in their use of standard mechanics. I know we all have our pet peeves, grammar-wise (mine is the phrase "Where you at?" I want to shriek "RIGHT BEHIND THE AT!" every time I hear it), I tend to focus more on the overall content of the piece. If I can understand what the author is trying to say, then I tend to forgive specific mistakes. To each his own, I guess. What are your thoughts on the piece itself?

Mike H's picture

I'm in my 10th year of teaching and have become one of those teachers that takes the summer off. About four years ago, I made it a plan for each summer to go somewhere different, to experience new cultures, food, drink, and points of interest. This is my way of taking care of myself before each school year. I teach journalism and drama. I'm the adviser for the yearbook and newspaper. I am the director of an arts academy on my high school campus, and I oversee the performing arts auditorium and direct three shows per year. I don't leave campus till after 6 and sometimes I'm working with students on Saturdays. I am an English teacher so my classes adhere to ELA standards in addition to performing arts standards. By May, I'm exhausted and that month long vacation I have planned, is what keeps me going. I also travel to see my parents for a month.

However, I do come back for a week to go to a non-paid, week long journalism workshop with my students. But if I don't make the time to take care of myself, nourish my soul, fire up my spirit, I wouldn't be able to make it through the school year. So when people say, "It must be nice having summers off." I reply "It is, and Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc."

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Slemteacher's picture

I loved this piece! I could have written it myself if I weren't so exhausted from teaching summer school for the past five weeks! I am also a career changer. I teach middle school English in an urban school district. I have taught summer school for the past eight summers, but I will be taking next summer off to "sharpen the saw" and recover. My students will benefit from having a well rested teacher and I will find ways to get by without the extra money. People who resent our "summers off" are ignorant to the daily realities and pressures that career teachers face - the long hours, the high level of vigilance required in a school, the physical and mental exhaustion, and I could go on and on. The clever posters who want to nitpick grammar errors make me laugh! Part of the reason our job is so hard is because many children do not learn to value and respect teachers at home.

worried's picture

Dear Slemteacher,
Your insinuation that we "clever posters" with an eye for grammar simply didn't learn to "value and respect teachers at home" is inaccurate and insulting. I respected and valued the teachers who were good at their craft. It's sad that you think people who love English, and are passionate enough about it to speak up, are part of the reason your job is so hard. I originally posted a reply to this article simply because it was distressing to see glaring punctuation errors on an education website from an author who is "developing the 8th grade ELA performance tasks" for a district.

Slemteacher's picture

I apologize for insulting you and want to assure you that was not my intent. I get tired of hearing about how fortunate I am to have summers, school vacations, and snow days off. Some of the general public get tired of hearing how underpaid or overworked teachers are. It reminds me of the age old debate between mothers who work outside of the house versus moms who work at home, raising their children. Both jobs are impossibly difficult! As far as using proper grammar goes, maybe it struck a nerve because I'm the queen of careless online typos and other errors! Teachers are so often vilified that it makes it difficult to not get defensive. The district I teach in has little parent involvement and there is a complete lack of respect for teachers and the education system. This culture and attitude is reflected in the behaviors we encounter on a daily basis. Again, please accept my apology, this tired teacher is in need of a vacation!
P.S. Snow days are pretty great, but we have to make the days up at the end of the school year!

TaughtThemNot's picture

@Pooja Patel

What I wrote is not slander. As I said, I'm very grateful for the many teachers in my life, and without them, I would not have sought out the profession in any form myself. But if teachers truly are year-round learners, then listening to dissent thoughtfully seems like the prudent, professional thing to do here.

The fact that you know people who "double dip" by completing freelance work while on the clock for a salaried job is irrelevant to this conversation. You seem to be insinuating that because some professionals outside schools do something unethical, that U.S. schools should foster an environment that encourages teachers to seek alternate forms of income. Somehow I doubt that's what you, I or anyone here truly believes.

The fact is the potential to do freelance work during the summer without other full-time obligations is a pretty unique benefit to teaching in U.S. schools. If the public should consider the "need" for teachers to work summers, it would be logical to conclude that their salaries, then, should be based on 75 to 80 percent of comparable professionals' salaries, if, as the author contends, they're expected to work separate jobs in the summer. I'm confident most of us--myself included--wouldn't support that.

And indeed, I am jealous of having summers off. But that doesn't seem like it should be anyone's motivation for becoming an educator. Your last sentences where you suggest that I sought part-time teaching because I'm unfit to do it full-time, however, is rather ironic considering the quality of your communication--arguably the most important virtue of educating.

Pooja Patel's picture

We will have to disagree. This article talks about the myths of vacation. Your points from previous post, and what they insinuate, are insulting to educators and are not true. If you truly supported teachers you would not give a compliment, as you cut them down. But, the mistake was mine, in this case. I should know better than comment on some posts with facts. Just as an FYI: you brought up free lance and such. Have a nice day.

Mike H's picture

I'm in my 10th year of teaching and have become one of those teachers that takes the summer off. About four years ago, I made it a plan for each summer to go somewhere different, to experience new cultures, food, drink, and points of interest. This is my way of taking care of myself before each school year. I teach journalism and drama. I'm the adviser for the yearbook and newspaper. I am the director of an arts academy on my high school campus, and I oversee the performing arts auditorium and direct three shows per year. I don't leave campus till after 6 and sometimes I'm working with students on Saturdays. I am an English teacher so my classes adhere to ELA standards in addition to performing arts standards. By May, I'm exhausted and that month long vacation I have planned, is what keeps me going. I also travel to see my parents for a month.

However, I do come back for a week to go to a non-paid, week long journalism workshop with my students. But if I don't make the time to take care of myself, nourish my soul, fire up my spirit, I wouldn't be able to make it through the school year. So when people say, "It must be nice having summers off." I reply "It is, and Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc."

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